This time last year I cheerfully suggested that I would be delivering my 2017 Game of the Year by “etching my countdown into the salted earth of a radioactive wasteland”. Fortunately this prediction has turned out to be a quite the overreaction and we merely find ourselves on the precipice of a global thermonuclear war. I’m sure this is of some comfort to us all.
While we’ve been hurtling towards tweet induced annihilation; like the characters in a Black Mirror script deemed too implausible to film; the world of video games has produced possibly its finest year ever. Yes, as I sit and take a huge gulp of 2017 before swilling it around my mouth and dribbling it into the spit bucket that is this blog, I can safely say it has been a truly vintage year. 1998 is often seen as the benchmark for these things with releases like Half Life, Ocarina of Time and Iggy’s Wreckin’ Balls but the level of quality has been so obscenely and consistently high these past twelve months that if you sit *really* close to the screen and turn the volume up high you can almost block out the final death throes of western civilization
So let’s have a look shall we? Of course, I went and bloody did a top twenty of all time not so long ago so there’s a little overlap. Done a new entry for everything though because I love the sound of my own voice (or the sight of my own words, whatever). Hopefully it’s enough to take your mind off all the race hate and sexual predators (“Race Hate” and “Sexual Predators”; coming exclusively to Xbox One, Fall 2018. IT’S IN THE GAME).
10. Prey (Playstation 4)
Prey is a first person adventure where you battle a mysterious alien threat on a damaged space station with a dark history to uncover and oh my fucking God I’m falling asleep writing this, it sounds shite, it looks shite, the name is shite why am I playing this kill me now. But for a game that is oddly impressive in the way it manages to make itself appear as unappealing and generic as possible, within the first half an hour Prey reveals itself to be astonishingly imaginative, constantly surprising and only really let down by the fact that it tried to cram too many ideas in.
Ideas like the Mimics, enemies that can literally disguise themselves as anything that then launch themselves at your face like the big-bastard, space-spiders they are whenever you’re near. Every room is petrifying to enter, you’re constantly on guard and you’ll learn to distrust cups, viewing each one with uneasy suspicion. You’ve got the story, which constantly flies in surprising directions. Be it the robotic assistants that your character has created, granting them his own voice so that when they’re giving conflicting information it only adds to the doubt. Or the bit when you discover that in this game JFK survived the assassination attempt for some reason; delivered with a kind of nonchalance that will have you constantly second guessing its importance. But the jewel in the crown is the character customisation options branching out in a million directions, allowing you to approach each scenario with stealth, fists or brain smarts, meaning that there will be dozens of different ways of tackling the challenges that you’ll probably never consider.
If it all sounds a bit too much, then that’s because it definitely is. Prey is ropey as all fuck in places but its enthusiasm and sheer volume of ideas means that when something doesn’t quite work for you, you can just ignore it and try something else. A game I’m utterly delighted I took a punt on and one that is taking up all my gaming time as I write this this. You could say that ‘all I do each night is Prey’ *punches monitor, microwaves hard drive, shoots self*
9. The Legend of Zelda: The Breath of the Wild (Nintendo Switch)
It’s really fucking difficult for me to talk about this without talking about why I don’t think it’s the greatest thing since baked dough was segregated into a sequence of smaller, equal sections but as a master of phrasing I’m willing to give it a go.
Hyrule in Breath of the Wild is majestic as all fuck. After your first ten hours in a game that will easily consume a hundred, you’ll begin to expect something breathtaking over the crest of every hill. The reality of popping upstairs will seem oddly disappointing when it’s not accompanied by an intensely beautiful sunset dancing across a scene of impossible wonder. The music and sound work too is simply extraordinary; I don’t think I’ve ever played a game that uses silence so confidently and expertly and it’s refreshing to be able to praise a game for knowing when to shut up.
But for me, the most admirable thing about this game is that it’s so ruddy, bloody brave. It’s like a kid getting one of those Pride of Britain award things off Davina on ITV. Even when individual parts of its production and design don’t seem quite right, or when the whole bloody enterprise is a little off, you can’t deny that its heart is in the right place and the intentions are pure. The changes to the core Zelda formula are so broad, so sweeping, that you might ask yourself “what have they done?” You might find yourself thinking it’s irritating that your weapons break all the time. And you might find yourself getting annoyed with climbing in the rain. And you might find yourself wishing for an actual, proper dungeon. And you might tell yourself, “This is not my beautiful Hyrule! This is not my beautiful Link!” But if you’re not terrified of change like myself there’s a very good chance you’ll find this a once in a lifetime experience. Hidden away amongst the rolling hills, the icy tundra and punishing desert are regular moments of unmistakable genius.
It’s obviously a truly exceptional video game it’s just not *necessarily* the one was after. But I can safely, assuredly, recommend it to absolutely everyone, which is more that I can say for half of the shit I decide to play. I spent all year moaning about it and I’ve still put it on this list, look. Breath of the Wild is a divine beast of a game. Pure, concentrated Nintendo magic. How the bloody hell do they do it?
8. ARMS (Nintendo Switch)
The main theme to ARMS is so ridiculously good that had the game simply been a blank screen with the tune on loop, there’s a very good chance it would have made this list anyway. A rousing, triumphant football chant spliced with the kind of outrageous funk that can get a guy arrested, it’s gone beyond the concept of ‘earworm’ and its permanent residence in the back of my head means that when I’m not thinking of anything else, I’m thinking about the theme tune to ARMS.
But fortunately, aside from a soundtrack that’s as moreish as heroin flavoured Pringles, what Nintendo have delivered once again is their own fiercely unique take on a firmly established genre. ARMS gets rid of all inputs, the quarter half backward circles, the just-let-me-pause-the-game-for-a-minute-because-I’ve-not-played-for-a-week-and-I’ve-forgotten-how-my-fireball-differs-slightly-from-that-other-guy and just lets you get on with the beautiful ebb and flow of attack and defence.
With motion controls, ARMS is ridiculously intuitive. A curve of the wrist causes the twenty foot long limbs of you character to bend gracefully round objects; the distance and angles making each bop on the nose so much more satisfying. Every bout is like a boxing match between Stretch Armstrong and Mr Tickle and the character select screen is absolutely bursting with the chunky colours and vibrant attitude that used to be the calling card of Sega but is increasingly becoming the hallmark of this ‘New-Nintendo’.
ARMS has spent the entire year being my ‘other game’. The thing I stick on when I fancy a change from whatever I’m concentrating on. This isn’t a criticism. It’s not always the bridesmaid. It’s because the game demands such a high level of physical and mental concentration that I literally can only play a couple of matches at a time before feeling completely exhausted.
But it’s been there all year; I always come back to it. If the theme tune has become the hold music to my mind then the fights themselves have become the videogame equivalent; it’s the side quest that stops me from getting on with the story. ARMS is effortlessly entertaining; a pair of gorgeous, rippling, well-oiled biceps. Somebody call the vet, ’cause these swans are sick.
7. Resident Evil 7 (Playstation 4)
Despite the odds being stacked against me, I have managed to secure a wife and it is with this in mind that I warn others in a similarly precarious marital situation to avoid playing this in VR whilst your other half is in the room. At one point roughly five hours in I emitted the kind of shriek you’d expect to hear from the disembodied legs of a housewife in a Tom and Jerry cartoon and removed my headset to find M’lady looking at me in a way that suggested our sex-having days were now behind us.
What might be considered as a fairly cheap sequence of jump scares, transform into a harrowing, nightmarish assault on the senses that neatly chops a day or two off the end of your life with every heart-stopping fright. I know what you’re thinking; what a fantastic way to spend your money and time. But for me, Resident Evil 7 gets the tone of its horror absolutely spot on. I can play the game terrified, but then turn it off and get on with my life without feeling the need to check under the bed for monsters.
It’s a good ol’ fashioned, wholesome horror. A ghost train that’s not trying to leave you with permanent mental scaring. And despite eventually beating itself up with the same “having-to-explain-all-this-spooky-shit-with-science” stick that this series always feels the need to do (I seriously don’t think I’ve ever played a game that is more THIS IS THE SECOND HALF OF THE GAME DO NOT CONFUSE IT WITH THE FIRST HALF WHICH IS DIFFERENT TO THIS HALF than this) those first fantastic hours as you’re tormented by the Baker family is a brilliant amalgamation of every redneck, cannibal, psycho bastard film you’ve seen with a nice dash of scary girl with black hair over her face for good measure.
Ma and Pa Baker are incredibly well realised: Dad stomps around the place, swinging spiky shit, unexpectedly crashing through walls while hollerin’ “C’MERE BOY!” and Mum cackles around the outhouses and barns, surrounded by swarms of insects whilst unconvincingly yelling that she “AIN’T GONNA HURT YA!”. Easily two of my favourite characters of the year, the game comes alive every moment they’re on screen. Which is somewhat unfortunate seeing as the best way to keep yourself alive is to keep them *off* screen.
But in those moments where, thanks to the VR, you find yourself hiding behind a chair, literally peeking round the corner to catch a glimpse of their imposing shadows, you’ll be playing a game that although is not quite as amazing as the near-untouchable Resident Evil 4, is just as successful in taking the series into a thrilling new direction. A gruesome treat and the first time I played something that convinced me that VR can do ‘normal’ games. Put it on your head, BOY!
6. Nioh (Playstation 4)
The story of a western sailor who finds his way to Japan in the 1600s and immediately manages to integrate himself into every single aspect of their incredibly impenetrable culture may sound like the wet dream of the kind of prick who drinks green tea (*looks to camera*), but beyond its lavish dedication to all things Nippon this delivers the most startlingly complex and deep combat system I’ve seen for years. Not content with several main weapons types, (each with their own complete set of moves and pages upon pages of upgrades), Nioh then asks you how you want to stand when you’re bloody holding the things.
It can initially seem brutally, impossibly difficult; and certainly it’s trickiness is on a par with making it this way through a review of the game without mentioning Dark Souls or Bloodborne once. But once it clicks, and oh my God does it click, the wealth of options and the possibility for different approaches is intoxicating. With smart little mechanics like the ‘ki pulse’ (a move in which you replenish stamina with a neat, timed button press shortly after wailing on some fool, which feels just as cool to pull off the hundredth time as it does the first) and some truly outstanding boss battles you have one of those games that gives back whatever you put in.
Dedicate yourself to the noble pursuit of the samurai. Become one with the blade. Protect your honour. Take a really fucking long time to make tea for some reason. Nioh is a journey to an enigmatic, mysterious place wrapped in enigmatic, mysterious gameplay and unpicking one is just as satisfying as understanding the other. A real treat that would have been in with a shout of being my game of 2016 had it been released a couple of months earlier. Yes, my number 6 game would have been top last year. *That’s* how good this year has been.
6. WipEout Omega Collection (Playstation 4)
Playing WipEout has always been the video game equivalent of being screamed at in the face by that terrifying skinny dude from the Aphex Twin video. A constant bombardment on all your senses, success at the highest difficulties and fastest speeds requires Buddhist monk levels of concentration, or at the very least the employment of some Clockwork Orange-style anti-blinking technology lest you divert your pupils for the merest nanosecond.
Omega Collection bundles together the two PS3 games, HD and Fury, along with the Vita entry, 2048, in a compilation that can feel a little mismatched thanks to the game’s settings at opposite ends of the WipEout timeline. But thanks to some truly outstanding remaster work; seriously, this is probably the finest cross-generational update ever; such petty inconsistencies vanish in an explosion of neon vapour trails and cool-as-fuck design. It’s virtually impossible to tell that these games ever started life on previous generation machines. The vast cities and the undulating tracks that weave their way through them along with a fantastically addictive photo mode really do highlight the insane level of craft that has gone into bringing these games up-to-date.
I’m not generally one for nattering on about frame rates, but allow me the time to grow a beard so that I can stroke it as I say that the gloriously fluid 60 frames per second here are absolutely essential to the experience. It just all feels so luxurious, like having a bath in Bailey’s.
Omega Collection also benefits greatly from being a bunch of games bolted together insofar that it’s absolutely gigantic. As you gradually make your way thought the grids, the speed steadily increasing along with your skill, it just never seems to stop speeding off into the distance.
Of the three games here HD is my favourite, being perhaps the purest expression of fly as fast as possible in a cool, fucking spaceship; but Fury with its modes that prioritise aggression over speed and 2048 with its delightfully throaty near-future engine noise are both brilliant titles in their own right. WipEout is such an easy sell to me, being basically a collection of things that Jolly likes told through art that Jolly likes to some music that Jolly likes. It’s the kind of game I want to be making if I could just stop bloody playing (and, y’know, actually had the talent). But this is the absolute pinnacle of this shit and the recently announced VR mode which will be coming in 2018 will only make it better, even if you suspect it may be wise to keep the ginger nuts near to stave off the travel sickness. I couldn’t give a shit personally; put me in it. Let’s get voming.
4. Splatoon 2 (Nintendo Switch)
Fair play to Nintendo for showing the restraint to not take Ian from Marketings advice and name this “Spla2n”, something which sounds like it should work but it definitely doesn’t Ian; have a word with yourself.
But the strengths of this sequel go way beyond adherence to alphanumeric norms, and what we have here is a glorious expansion of the rulebook-ruining original. An online team shooter that’s almost belligerent in the way it tries to differentiate itself from other games in the genre, Splatoon replaces each bored, old convention with something brave and unique. “I’m tired of everyone picking the same maps over and over” says Todd CoD, “you’re going to play just these two maps on rotation for the next hour and you’re going to bloody well enjoy it” says Vidal Splatoon. “God, I hate having to make my way back into the fi…”, “way ahead of you Todd. Each time you respawn you can jump straight back into it”. “Everyone is a bit of an arsehole online aren’t they?”, “You’re right Todd; from henceforth the only method of communication between players will be the phrase ‘booyah'”. “I hate campers and the…” “Jesus Christ Todd, I’ve got it, alright? It’s all fine, I’ve fixed it all. Just fucking play it mate. Trust me.”
But you know Vidal, he ain’t happy with just fixing what’s broke. He wants to put his own sparkle on proceedings, and there’s perhaps no greater example of this than the magnificent Splatfests. On the occasional weekend, just irregular and infrequent enough to make them feel wonderfully special, Splatoon asks you to pick a side in an ancient conflict and then transforms the set dressing, stages and music in the game to make it feel like a proper event. The summer’s inaugural battle between mayonnaise and ketchup will surely go down in history as one of gaming’s bloodiest battles, beating all other candidates to become the most divisive and fiercely contested democratic decision of recent times.
That the endlessly imaginative single player or the addition of the captivating Salmon Run mode (think of a horde mode in any other shooter and then make it immeasurably less shit by cutting out the boring, fifteen minute ‘warm up’ period) feel like nonchalant afterthoughts only go to prove what an fantastically generous package this is.
But perhaps Splatoon’s greatest achievement is that it takes the famously toxic environment of online battling and makes it so bloody nice that it’s welcoming to both five year olds and the cripplingly shy alike. Both my children and I can play this without being subjected to the dark, diseased heart of collective humanity. And I’ll be honest; I quite like that in a video game.
3. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe (Nintendo Switch)
Mario Kart 8 is The Best Looking Game. It’s ridiculously gorgeous. It’s the kind of game that would be formed out of a union of Don Draper and Joan out of Mad Men; such is its effortless sex appeal. It also sounds simply magnificent. Deep, rich and warm, jazzy, funky and vibrant, it’s a soundtrack so good that frankly I don’t want to consider how much I’d pay to hear performed live, but should the opportunity arise I’d like to forewarn my children to keep an eye on their kidneys.
Fortunately, alongside all this, Nintendo have crafted what is not only easily the best game in the series but also my absolute favourite game to play online. It’s just so fucking good and whatever mad magic there is going on in the background to ensure that every race is close but fair (arguably the first time Mario Kart has ever truly nailed this) it results in a game in which it seems borderline impossible to have a shit race. A banana skin on the final bend or a red shell on the home straight not only act as a neat metaphor of what it means to be alive in 2017, but also keep the races insanely close and the tiny seemingly inconsequential tweak from vanilla Mario Kart 8 on Wii U which allows you to carry two items rather than one adds a welcome layer of strategy.
Go offline, strip it all back and start to try and beat the ghosts in the excellent time trials and you’ll gain a true appreciation of what is surely one of the finest collection of tracks in racing game history. I often find myself playing racing games and referring to the tracks as “The One With The Bridge”, ” The One With That Corner”, “Oh, This One” and “Oh No, Not This One”. So often they just become one indistinct blur, partly due to the lack of memorable design and partly down to who gives a fuck. Not here. With one or two exceptions, there’s something special, unique or magical about each location. The music, sights and design all melding perfectly to create the exceptional. Melody Motorway and its plinky-plonky powerslide across the keys of a glockenspiel. Super Bell Subway and its weird marriage of the Mushroom Kingdom and Beastie Boys Brooklyn (MY. WHAT AN INTERESTING IDEA. I WONDER IF ANY OTHER GAMES WILL TRY THIS). Electrodome and its euphoric jump after pounding down a set of stairs; each step being followed by an increasingly punchy, synth blast; all taking place under the gaze of a bunch of Shy Guys and Koopa Troopers completely off their tits on 1-Ups. Mount Wario, a track with a name that only gets funnier with time, and its billion, million brilliant bits.
I haven’t even mentioned the fact that they’ve brought back Battle Mode properly and it’s easily the best version of the mode since the N64 days. I thought perhaps Mario Kart was sending itself down a creative cul-de-sac over the years. I’ll admit to rolling my eyes when they revealed the anti-gravity mechanic and driving across the ceiling to the bits in the air and bits underwater. Consider these eyes well and truly swivelled back into place. This is ridiculously, obscenely good. An absolute belter.
2. Super Mario Odyssey (Nintendo Switch)
Who likes remembering stuff? Yeah, we all love a good old remember don’t we? The problem is, remembering stuff isn’t as good nowadays. Remember how we used to remember stuff back in the old days? That was proper remembering! These days remembering stuff is all about the remembering rather than the stuff we actually remember. Remember? Fortunately, one game this year made remembering an absolute art form. It made remembering so good that it actually caused this 36 year old to well up with tears, twice. It was so successful at remembering, that all the bits that it did that weren’t remembering, despite being astonishing in their own right, were occasionally difficult to remember.
It was Super Mario Odyssey and fuck me it was an odyssey in every sense of the word. An exceptional, incredible adventure celebrating over thirty years of exceptional, incredible adventures its magic is that even when it’s in thrall to the series past, it still manages to be impossibly, fantastically new.
To spoil some of the more ingenious nods to previous Mario games would be to spoil some of the most spectacularly beautiful moments in videogame history. That’s not hyperbolic; on a handful of occasions Odyssey delivers the kind of warm hug, the kind of cheeky smile, that literally only the biggest, most successful name in videogames could pull off. It *needs* the history. From Donkey Kong to Galaxy, from Mario Kart to Mario Maker, there’s a message of love here to anyone who has ever picked up a pad and flung a plumber round some pipes.
And fuck me, if they haven’t managed to make him more fun to fling about. The addition of Cappy, a sentient hat that Mario can throw and bounce off, alongside a number of subtle tweaks and expansions to his existing repertoire, have made Mario even more fun to control and you only have to look at some of the videos of the free-running challenges (where you have to race Koopa Troopers to an end point) to see how expansive and flexible this system has become.
And you’ll need complete mastery of these controls if you ever hope to get collect all 999 power moons that make up this adventure. The number and frequency of these collectables is one of the game’s greatest strengths; there’s always something to do, something to try. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve thought I was close to completing a kingdom only to discover I’ve got a ton of moons to find.
This is also, easily, the weirdest Mario ever created. Within twenty minutes you’ll be controlling a realistically rendered T-Rex with a moustache. Several hours later you’ll pinch yourself as you realise that it’s referencing Dark Souls. A little earlier you might have seen Mario’s nipples. There’s songs in it; songs with actual words, that will briefly, unexpectedly, remind you of the golden age of Hollywood musicals.
‘Jump Up, Superstar’, an impossibly brilliant jazzy number that only reveals it’s true brilliance once you’ve finished the game, is the game in a nutshell. Surprising, energetic, knowing, loving, exuberant, magical. This is an incredible game and as good as Mario has ever been. Let’s-a-go, motherfuckers.
1. Nex Machina (Playsation 4)
About fifteen years ago, I bought a bunch of those ‘arcade collection’ things on the PS2 in order to try and educate myself on the gaps in my gaming history in a futile attempt to add some legitimacy to my words when I wanted to be all snobby and knowledgeable about videogames. Taito, Namco, Midway, Capcom. They were all largely crap of course, videogames only started to become actually good around about the 16bit era (*trollface*), but I did enjoy two; Defender and Robotron 2084. Games which both struck me as Tetrisesque in their timelessness and were made by a chap called Eugene Jarvis. So when it was announced that he was teaming up with the studio Housemarque, creators of some of the best arcade style games of recent times I was rather excited.
What I didn’t quite expect was that it would result in literally one of the best games ever made. In other games where I experienced my usual depreciating time to entertainment curve (where thanks to my miniscule attention span, games become gradually less appealing the longer I spend with them), this just didn’t happen with Nex Machina. In fact, the reverse happened. The more I spent with it, the more I loved it. The more I appreciated it. Each moment spent in its mad brilliance nudged it further and further up my all timers. Learning to prioritise one mechanic over another, trying to make sense of the unfathomably deep scoring system, all whilst dodging an unholy fuckton of bullets result in a game that demands a ridiculous level of attention and skill. It’s like playing a piano and watching Only Connect at the same time. But when you pull it off; when your fingers instinctively make an impossible escape through barely perceptible route, synapses bursting in your brain as you manage to quickly calculate a way to combine this death-defying escape to boost your multiplier; you’ll feel superhuman.
Over the course of Nex Machina you’ll start to turn into its titular A.I; a cold, ruthless, terrifying killing machine. Part of the game’s beauty is that it’s never patronising. It just piles on the ideas, somehow always managing to keep it from the brink of becoming too much. Just trying to remember the location of the arcade machines that whisk you off to the point-boosting secret levels is tough enough but you also have to remember to keep your human multiplier topped up by protecting the helpless little dudes but NOT immediately collecting them, you also have to change your normal course through a stage because one of the randomly assigned disruptor enemies has just spawned, and you need to keep an eye on that power up so you collect it at just the right point, and you need to remember to dash at the exact point a level finishes in order to get the flashy bastard bonus and while you’re at it you’ll probably want to keep yourself alive too.
An area won’t take you longer than ten minutes but you’ll be staggered at the amount of stuff it fills it with. Time seems to bend round it. A campaign that can be ‘finished’ in little over an hour is the grandest, deepest journey of the year.
I put ‘finished’ in quotation marks because this is ludicrously difficult videogame, with areas that will forever remain locked off to me (I recall about eight weeks after release looking at the leaderboards and noticing that literally only ten people had unlocked the highest difficulty worldwide), but it’s not designed to be rinsed in a few weeks and then replaced with the next darling. It’s designed to be played and discovered forever.
In a few decades time someone is going to pick up a bunch of those ‘arcade collection’ things on the PS8 in order to try and educate themselves and add some legitimacy to their words when they want to be all snobby and knowledgeable about videogames. They’ll all be largely crap of course, videogames only started to become actually good around about the holodeck era (*trollface*) but Nex Machina will stand tall. To describe it as a twin stick shooter is to do it a disservice; it’s THE twin stick shooter. I genuinely can’t see it ever being bettered and with the heartbreaking news that Housemarque is going to quit this style of game (‘arcade is dead’ in their own words) I’ll be surprised if anyone even tries. It’s the absolute perfect expression of a genre. Sweet Jiminey Jesus fuck, I love it. Game of the Year? Game of the Life, mate.